By Amb (Retd) Sheel Kant Sharma
India’s nuclear weapon tests in May 1998 had more to do with its external security environment and the global strategic situation rather than domestic compulsions. Over the past two decades, the global environment and world order have changed considerably and so has the strategic calculus. The world today is in so many ways vastly different from what it was in 1998 or in the years preceding it. India’s interface, too, is utterly transformed. A major part of this transformation had its roots in the courageous crossing of the Rubicon in 1998. There is indeed great deal that can be said today with the benefit of hindsight but these past two decades since the Shakti tests have seen many transforming phases in the global conjuncture. It is always tempting when looking back to pick faults with what was done, to expound what could and should have been done, and whether twenty years hence, things look better or worse. It is good however to quickly recap the conditions prevailing in the run up to 1998. A retrospective can assess the vistas that opened, the relationships that blossomed, and the impact it had on the country’s political economy and security.
The tests were in more senses than one the culmination of a journey that began with India’s nuclear programme in the 1950s. That programme was launched by a newly independent nation with considerable aspirations in science and technology (S&T) but challenged by a severe resource crunch and lack of skilled manpower. Even so, the leaders then made a strategic choice to pursue capabilities in the entire range of nuclear S&T, from mining to waste management. They also broadly avowed this pursuit for peaceful use, not for the bomb. They kept, however, options open to themselves for future contingencies and were averse to a priori and unilaterally closing any technology option. Thus they persevered for four to five decades in building a full nuclear enterprise; standing off the exercise of a weapons option, and seeking security in the nuclear age by sustained campaigning for global abolition of nuclear weapons.
India had to come to terms with menacing challenges that came up on the way including, for instance: the Chinese bomb in 1964, the NPT in 1968, the Seventh Fleet bullying in 1971, the long isolation and censure after the peaceful nuclear experiment (PNE) of 1974, and finally the Soviet demise in 1989. But the sinister blow was to come in the 90s, when deceitful and clandestine Pakistan-China collaboration on nuclear weapons and missiles elicited just a passing mention of concern from the prevailing global nuclear order. This order, shepherded by a triumphant and sole superpower and its allies, also appeared blind to audacious Pakistan-sponsored terror plus nuclear weapons blackmail. As Andrew Small mentions in his book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, China had given Pakistan the ultimate gift from one state to another (i.e. that of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles).
At the same time, the indomitable spirit of India’s nuclear scientists and engineers and the prowess of their enterprise had fortified and grown by the 1990s despite the post-PNE ostracising. Their capabilities empowered India’s emergence as a nuclear-armed state. Hence the definitive and in-your-face tests of 11 May and 13 May 1998 and unequivocal proclamation of India’s nuclear-armed status.
On 11 May 1998, the global impact of the tests was staggering. External intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had no prior inkling, largely due to the care taken by authorities to dodge external surveillance of the preparations and test site. New Delhi had envisaged the hue and cry that followed. Further tests on 13 May dispelled any doubts as to India’s emergence as a state with nuclear weapons. It broke the invidious and erring mould of a timid, indecisive, soft state. Prime Minister Vajpayee affirmed in clear statements, including in the parliament on 27 May 1998, that India had conducted nuclear weapons tests. Their rationale was articulated with solemn assurance that India’s nuclear weapons would not be for aggression.
Thus emerged a new paradigm that comprised nuclear and missiles capability, a doctrine of no first use (NFU) and a credible minimum deterrent. It affirmed a unilateral moratorium on further testing and massive and assured retaliation if attacked with nuclear weapons. It eschewed falling into an arms race trap and upheld the security objective of multilaterally seeking a world without nuclear weapons. India’s position gradually evoked understanding in key capitals in the years that followed. High-level demarches were made in Paris, London, Berlin, and Moscow. An extended and intensive bilateral dialogue between External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott paved the way for a changing US perception of India. The agenda of this dialogue also included export controls as the US insisted on assurance that India’s technological prowess not be open to pilferage by hostile states and should remain proliferation-proof. As this jelled with India’s policy in any case, credible action was demonstrated, including through systematic consultations involving diverse agencies of the government coordinated by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Pakistan conducted its tit-for-tat tests; breast-beating about South Asia nearing a nuclear flash point. Launching a peace mission to Pakistan, Prime Minister Vajpayee undertook a bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. His meetings with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif initiated several confidence-building measures. But the Pakistan Army slyly sabotaged the Lahore outcome through the Kargil misadventure; exposing, inter alia, Pakistan’s bluff about the so-called nuclear flash point. President Bill Clinton showed markedly better understanding of India’s narrative in the wake of Pakistan’s aggression in Kargil; displaying growing US concern about Pakistan’s role and involvement in what was seen as Osama bin Laden’s global jihad. Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000 unfurled a long-term vision of India-US relations. The Clintons set aside past practice and after a full six-day state visit to India, spent a mere six hours in Pakistan, and that too, in Karachi – marking US de-hyphenation of India from Pakistan.
President George Bush accelerated the transformation of relations with India, eventually freeing them from the overpowering strain of decades of discordant nuclear policies. The shock and revulsion post 9/11 fundamentally altered US priorities in dealing with terrorism and non-proliferation. What rapidly changed the perspective were extraordinary revelations about Pakistan’s pernicious role in clandestine proliferation, with specific material evidence in documents uncovered in 2003-04 about aiding and abetting Iranian and Libyan nuclear weapons pursuit. India’s excellent non-proliferation credentials stood in stark contrast. Moreover, rising crude prices had triggered a veritable renaissance for nuclear power by 2004. A growing Indian economy’s hunger for energy including nuclear power was critical to development. India persuaded its interlocutors that its nuclear enterprise’s categorical imperative in the coming decades would be in meeting energy needs. India pleaded for nuclear cooperation with the US and agreed to separate the strategic component of its nuclear enterprise from the much larger civilian side, and to place all civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards.
This contributed to quick progress towards the nuclear cooperation agreement with the US. The US configured India’s ‘mainstreaming’ in the global nuclear community by amending key Congressional acts inhibiting cooperation with India, and obtaining an India-specific exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The India-US Agreement in 2008 was, doubtless, the kernel of a much larger strategic partnership with the US. India would also emerge with an upgraded profile in the global diplomatic arena, a profile greatly helped by a major quantum leap in India-US relations. India’s relations with Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, entered a new phase of a broader and intense strategic partnership with regular annual summits. Very substantial bilateral nuclear cooperation resulted in setting up two 1000 MW reactors in Kudankulam, and several more in the pipeline. With France, cooperation deals envisaged several advanced reactors in a huge nuclear park in Maharashtra. Strategic partnerships were also forged, setting the stage for versatile relationships with the UK, EU, Canada, Australia, and Japan.
Growth in the indigenous nuclear power programme is sustained with assured uranium supplies. India has active plans for expansion of nuclear power reactors in cooperation with the US, Russia, and France. The domestic enterprise plans more reactors and early commissioning of the Breeder (prototype) reactor in Kalpakkam.
A major upturn in India’s relations with the US, its allies and the West in general, has also catalysed China’s approach to India and led to better mutual understanding and expanding bilateral cooperation. This remains so despite the standoff on border issues, persisting Pakistan-China axis, and China’s reservations about India’s NSG membership.
As regards the strategic domain, ensuring a credible and survival deterrent comprising a nuclear triad is on track. However, recent years have seen a steady deterioration of geopolitics, adding uncertainties and grave misgivings about the future. Sooner than later, the strategic domain may not comprise only conventional and nuclear but increasingly the cyber and outer space dimensions. Also slipping from the front burner is the reduced salience of nuclear weapons, even though serious questions dog their utility except in ‘deterrent only’ mode. Given these uncertainties, India must effectively maintain its credible minimum deterrent.